Person of the Year: April Gornik

April Gornik at her home in North Haven. Lori Hawkins photo

By Kathryn G. Menu

April Gornik has always been a caring and empathetic person, says her husband and fellow-artist Eric Fischl, but something about Sag Harbor lit her inner social activist on fire and led one of the most respected landscape artists in the modern world to harness her energy — at a dizzying pace — off the canvas and into communities she holds dear to her heart.

“She has always had this energy,” said Mr. Fischl, “but not really this commitment to community. That is something that has come up over the last several years living out here. Before that, from time to time, she would become active — she was a part of the early years of the Women’s Action Coalition in New York City — but never with this consistency or long-term commitment.”

“I think she found home. And I think she didn’t even know she was looking for it,” Mr. Fischl continued. “I think she not only found home, but found a skill set within her that could actually help a number of people. And I think she really feels a direct connection to her efforts — and it pushes her forward.”

Ms. Gornik has long supported numerous non-profits, including East End Hospice, the South Fork Natural History Museum, Planned Parenthood, the Evelyn Alexander Wildlife Rescue Center in Hampton Bays and The Retreat. In 2013, she partnered with the Concerned Citizens of Montauk to create the Shark’s Eye Tournament after she successfully convinced some of the region’s leading shark fishermen to compete in a more humane kind of contest. It is Montauk’s only catch and release shark tournament, which places science above hunting.

In the last couple years, and at an almost break-neck pace in 2016, Ms. Gornik’s efforts have focused largely on causes in the greater Sag Harbor community. A founding board member of the Sag Harbor Partnership, which, according to its website, is “dedicated to the preservation and enhancement of quality of life in Sag Harbor,” Ms. Gornik helped organize and run a successful fundraiser in August to support the Sag Harbor Village Board’s proposed John Steinbeck Waterfront Park, drawing more than 800 people to the event on Long Wharf that raised over $130,000 to help the village acquire the park property. The event drew a diverse group of Sag Harbor residents together for a common cause, including students from Pierson High School who exhibited in a formal gallery show at Dodds and Eder.

“I have a theory – triplets,” joked current Sag Harbor Partnership President Nick Gazzolo when asked about Ms. Gornik’s seemingly endless draw of energy. “Because no one can explain it. We have been on a couple boards and worked on a number of projects together and I think some of the things unique about her community efforts is there is a great breadth to them. And she doesn’t let up.”

“From the mayor to 50 other people in the village — everyone would say the exact same thing,” he added. “People know if April is working on something, it is going to happen.”

In 2016, Ms. Gornik also led a fundraising effort for the Eastville Historical Society — of which she is a member — to replace the fence around a cemetery belonging to the historic AME Zion Church. She also helped Eastville raise funds for a computer used to archive the museum’s historic images.

“April has touched the lives of so many people, charitable organizations and institutions in our community that it is hard to keep track,” Susan Mead, the Partnership’s president in 2016, said when she announced Ms. Gornik as the recipient of the organization’s first annual Community Service Award in October.

“This is a great example of one of our organizations that loves the idea of our park and wants to do their bit,” Sag Harbor Mayor Sandra Schroeder said at the event. “They’ve been thinking and thinking about what they can do to support the village, and I find it very touching.” Mayor Schroeder praised Ms. Gornik at an October dinner at Baron’s Cove honoring the artist for her volunteerism.

“There is just no one like her,” she said.

Ms. Gornik was also behind the research and writing of several Sag Harbor walking tour apps that the Partnership makes available for free on Apple and Android phones. She personally researched Oakland Cemetery for the newest walking tour app, “Permanent Residents of Oakland Cemetery.”

“It’s this perfect little microcosm because the history, architecture and culture of the village are all reflected in the graves of so many personages buried here,” Ms. Gornik said in an interview with The Sag Harbor Express in November, when the tour launched.

Most recently, Ms. Gornik led an ad hoc group of residents in an effort to preserve the Sag Harbor Cinema — an effort that began before a fire on December 16 that gutted the front portion of the independent movie house, and led to the demolition of one of the village’s most recognizable buildings. The effort to preserve the cinema continues, with the Partnership launching a fundraising effort almost immediately to rebuild Main Street. Ms. Gornik also threw her efforts behind fundraising for those impacted by the fire — raising tens of thousands of dollars for two residents displaced by the inferno, and calling on community members to support the fire department, ambulance corps and police department through personal emails and a blast from the Partnership itself.

If there is a need, Ms. Gornik seems to find a way, Mr. Gazzolo said, adding that she proved to be a valuable friend and ally as he and other family and friends of Ibrahim Parlak — a Kurdish restaurateur from Michigan — fought to prevent his potential deadly deportation back to Turkey after a quarter century in the United States. Mr. Parlak, whose story earned national coverage, was eventually granted a stay of deportation, but in the midst of the battle to protect him from deportation, Mr. Gazzolo said he found Ms. Gornik in his corner.

“We were in the middle of all this, and driving to Michigan, unsure of what was going to happen, and April calls,” he remembered. “And she wants to know what she can do. A little while later, I got a call from Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s office — they said, ‘April Gornik told us about this situation and we want to help.’ She was also boosting our petitions for Ibrahim. There was just no stopping her efforts to help us out.”

“We are all in a state of awe in terms of her ability to juggle balls without dropping them,” said Mr. Fischl. “She is also not threatening. She really knows how to listen and she knows how to keep focused — I think she breaks down projects into small enough units where it isn’t overwhelming – it’s pragmatism combined with passion and maybe that’s her secret. She is definitely someone who works with a range of people and self interests and tries to find common ground.”

“She will tell you what she thinks politically speaking but at the same time she is always looking for ways we can bring people to the table and avoid the obvious wedges between groups,” agreed Mr. Gazzolo.

Mr. Fischl said Ms. Gornik’s father — a tax accountant for the Erie Lackawanna Railroad in Ohio, who moonlighted at night and weekends as a jazz trombonist — had a profound influence on his daughter.

“I never, unfortunately, met her father,” said Mr. Fischl, a Long Island native who met Ms. Gornik at the Novia Scotia College of Art & Design, where he taught painting. “He died tragically when she was 16. He had a big influence on her. He was a jazz trombone player who didn’t make a living at it, but he played his music all the time. She had that artistic sensibility. Another thing about her father was they would walk into the grocery store, or the pharmacy, and everyone knew him. He was friendly with everyone, he would remember names — it really impressed on her a sense of community that she started acting on when we moved here. And I began seeing the same kind of thing happen — I am terrible with names — but there she would be, chatting it up. There was no motivation for it. It wasn’t a gimmick or a technique to get what she wanted — she was generally interested in people’s lives, and people began confiding in her.”

And it was in Sag Harbor where she found that sense of community. The couple began coming to the village in the summer of 1985, becoming full-time residents of North Haven in 2004 after building their dream house on Fresh Pond Road in the late 1990s.

“That is when she became anchored here — focused on the health of this place,” said Mr. Fischl.

Of course, community organizing is something Ms. Gornik does with her time when she is not working at her chosen profession — painting — or cuddling her Bengal cats, Bepop and Hooper. Ms. Gornik managed to mount a show of new paintings in October at the Danese/Corey Gallery in Chelsea.

“Yeah, so in addition to all of this amazing work she is doing in the community, she is also a celebrated artist,” said Mr. Gazzolo. “I think that is what her third triplet does — paints and sleeps, that’s it.”